If you’d already booked that plane ticket to Pasadena, it’s probably best you ask for a refund. After three straight weeks of walking a tight-rope, the seemingly snake-bitten Wildcats were finally proven mortal on Saturday, falling to the Boilermakers 20-17. Another solid performance from Dan Persa (30 for 41, for 305 yards through the air) and a reasonably good defensive showing kept the ‘Cats in it, but ultimately too many mistakes piled up for Northwestern to beat a fairly mediocre Purdue team.
So in memoriam of our undefeated season, here are the three things that defined the game:
1. Special teams play is an abomination.
Yes, we could go on about Stefan Demos, and we probably should — and somebody will. His precipitous fall from grace continued with one missed field goal and one blocked attempt. I would argue that neither attempt was necessary. Northwestern had established a fairly strong short-yardage attack and could have gone for the win in either situation. Unfortunately, coach Pat Fitzgerald played the conservative call and was burned twice.
There is plenty of special teams disdain to go around, though. Hunter Bates and Stephen Simmons combined muffed three punts (was it the lights? nerves?), recovering two and really hurting the Cats in the field-position game. Punter Brandon Williams, after a relatively solid first five games, had one spectacularly poor punt of 15 yards during the second quarter. It is inexcusable for a Big Ten team, any Big Ten team, to commit this many gaffes. Here’s to a busy bye week, gentlemen.
2. It’s time to re-think the offensive dynamic.
The desperate search for a rushing attack continued to no avail under the lights, and a radical shift in play-calling should very well be in the cards. Neither Jacob Schmidt (12 carries for 32 yards) nor Mike Trumpy (9 carries for 23 yards) has emerged as the solution in the backfield, after flashes of brilliance in the previous two games. The closest thing the team has to an explosive runner is probably Persa, but his carries as the primary rusher were less than inspired as well.
As the schedule ramps up with the Michigan State game, it should finally be time for this offense to recognize its strengths and play to them. A team with zero standout backs should not be carrying the ball 42 times, particularly when the passing attack is so outstanding. The pace of the pass-first attack might very well open holes for the running backs to exploit, but so far run game has done nothing for the pass.
3. The true test of Northwestern’s new appeal has now begun.
The only night game of the 2010 season had its raucous moments, with a final attendance figure of 33,847, a slight increase over the Central Michigan turnout. The fans were boisterous and well-coordinated, forcing two time-outs in crucial red zone situations for Purdue. What comes next, however, will be the greatest indicator of how much traction the program is really gaining.
This is not an elite Big Ten team; we can rid ourselves of that illusion now. It is a good team with a dynamic quarterback, a largely forgiving schedule and a chance to make some noise. The promise of a storybook season has probably been lost, but half a season remains and this team can still have a great run. The question is, will anyone be at Ryan Field to see it if they do?